Harvard Shorenstein Paper on "Nature's Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual and Activist"

In a paper released today by Harvard University, I analyze the career of writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben and his impact over the past 20 years on the  climate change debate.  Below is a description of the paper from the corresponding web page at the Kennedy School of Government's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy.  More background on the paper and related book project is available by way of a story and video interview at the American University web site.


At his New York Times Dot Earth blog, Andrew Revkin posted about the paper this morning.  At Age of Engagement, the Climate Shift Project and other venues I will be highlighting and reflecting on discussion and reactions to the paper.

Nisbet, M.C. (2013). Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual, and Activist. Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy.  Discussion Paper Series, D-78 March.  Cambridge, MA: Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

In a new paper released today by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, Fall 2012 fellow Matthew C. Nisbet examines writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben’s career and impact on the debate over climate change, drawing comparisons to other journalists and public intellectuals writing on the topic.

McKibben is the author or editor of more than ten books and has been an influential voice on the environment for over two decades. He is most recently the founder of the advocacy group 350.org which has led campaigns against the Keystone XL oil pipeline and on behalf of campus divestment from fossil fuel companies.

McKibben is an example of what Nisbet calls a “knowledge journalist,” a special class of public intellectual who writes journalistically, but who unlike most of their journalistic peers specializes in the translation of complex subjects, often championing specific policy positions or causes. These writers tend to view the world deductively, immersing themselves in the synthesis of complex areas of research, offering analysis across cases and events.

Yet, as Nisbet describes, “they are also sometimes criticized for their characterization of uncertainty, for imposing their point-of-view, for lacking specialized credentials, for reducing explanations to a single idea, theory, or field; and often, for blurring the lines between journalism and activism.”

Nisbet opens the paper by introducing a broad framework for understanding the influence and career trajectory of journalists as public intellectuals; focusing on their training, style, celebrity, branding, and ability to frame complex problems.

He then details the career trajectory of McKibben, examining his main arguments across books; the intellectual traditions within which he writes; how his work has been received and evaluated by reviewers and scholars; and his turn in recent years to activism.

Nisbet concludes that McKibben deserves immense credit for being among the first to call attention to the problem of climate change; for his ability to articulate a compelling vision of a different kind of society; and for most recently, changing the way that environmental groups practice politics.

But, according to Nisbet, he can be faulted for offering "arguments for action on climate change that evoke a vision of the future that reflects his own values and priorities, rather than a broad, pragmatic set of choices designed to both effectively manage the problem and to align a diversity of political interests in support of policy action.”

Nisbet notes that multiple discourses about climate change exist, even among those who are the most dedicated to addressing the problem. What are needed then as a complement to voices like McKibben are forums and venues like Andrew Revkin’s New York Times’ Dot Earth blog.

In this style of “networked” knowledge journalism, Revkin combines his experience and authority as a veteran science journalist with the interactive tools of blogging, providing a “crosscutting discussion of science, policy and politics that challenges assumptions among partisans on all sides and widens the menu of options available to policymakers rather than narrowing them to just a few,” notes Nisbet

This is a style very different from other contemporary knowledge journalists writing as book authors or essayists, but perhaps uniquely suited to promoting understanding and societal consensus on climate change.

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Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication and Co-Director of the Center for Social Media at American University, Washington, D.C. Nisbet’s research examines the role of communication and media in policy-making and public affairs, focusing on debates over science, sustainability and public health. The author of more than 60 peer-reviewed studies, book chapters and reports, Nisbet has been a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a Google Science Communication Fellow, and a Shorenstein Fellow in Press/Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy is a Harvard University research center dedicated to exploring and illuminating the intersection of press, politics and public policy in theory and practice. The Center strives to bridge the gap between journalists and scholars, and between them and the public. Through teaching and research at the Kennedy School of Government and its program of visiting fellows, conferences and initiatives, the Center is at the forefront of its area of inquiry.

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A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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